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Exporting America: Groverman Blazes Global Entrepreneurial Trail

Peter Groverman rolls up to the Centennial Café at the historic Ohio House in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park, the place his entrepreneur/developer father restored and now serves as a sort of family home base, on a late winter afternoon. Emerging from his vehicle wearing a sharp blazer, wide open collared shirt and Villanova skull cap, Groverman moves fast and talks faster.

For Groverman, there’s lots to do, lots to see. The Villanova Law School grad isn’t into billable hours. Since his time at the University of Miami, where he started making money by connecting underage partygoers with some of the hottest clubs on South Beach, Groverman has exhibited all the signs of a card-carrying global entrepreneur.

Since then, Groverman’s entrepreneurial pursuits have taken on more weight, like the RELIEF Foundation he started to provide assistance in Haiti to victims of the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake there. He managed to round up 120 volunteers for the relief effort, including UM students and even the mayor of Coral Gables, Fla.

Beyond this humanitarian effort, Groverman is heading up separate ventures involving what he believes are two tickets to prosperity and success in the U.S. and abroad – exports and gamification. Representing the former is Grovara, an international distributor of US agricultural supplies and food products that connects American manufacturers with global distributors.  Points.ly represents the latter venture, a gamification platform still a few months away from being ready that Groverman hopes will transform sectors like education and healthcare.

Creating a Social Reality
So how did Groverman, 29, go from party-hopping frat boy in Miami to chaser of the 21st century American dream?

“You’d never think there’s a connection there. It’s just me being social,” says Groverman, who has shelved his other well-known venture, online ad sales platform Tapinko, a member of DreamIt Ventures' inaugural class. “My definition of an entrepreneur is someone who takes passion in fixing problems. I’ve learned the best way to fix problems is build teams who can help you.

“You can’t fix every problem by yourself. That’s kind of where the RELIEF Foundation came into the picture.”

Groverman easily rounded up 120 people for that first relief mission in Haiti. Since that trip, RELIEF was in Georgia last May following a brutal tornado and in Japan last April after the tragic tsunami there. Now the foundation, which specifically aids in disaster relief from the earth’s forces, is back in Haiti producing a documentary about its rebuilding of the Mayor’s office in Port Au Prince. Groverman also is working on rebuilding the American economy.

Exporting Dreams
At the start of 2010 President Obama announced a goal of doubling the nation’s exports within five years. U.S. exports are improving, especially to China, but nowhere near that goal, and not because Made in the USA carries less weight than it once did. Rather, Groverman contends, exporting is not a glamorous or even widely accessible business to break in to.

“(Most companies) never had a reason to export. It seems shady, scary and hard,” says Groverman. “Every country has (barriers), but they’re no different than barriers to opening a café in Fairmount Park.

“You don’t even need a law degree. I’m now working with my best friends. Anyone can do this."

Groverman founded Grovara with Sierra Leone native Abu Kamara, the company president who works with Groverman in Philadelphia along with a half-dozen mostly local salespeople and travels around the world. He met Groverman at Parc in Rittenhouse Square after hearing him pontificate about business in a crowd and seeking an introduction. 

Kamara, 30, says understanding the needs of customers in foreign lands is a major hurdle, one which he aims to clear by learning a country's history, political and business landscape and social conventions prior to a trip.

"The excitement for me comes with traveling," says Kamara, who was looking forward to a trip to Peru in May. "Even though cultures are different, if you come with business opportunity, people will welcome you with open arms."

Grovara started moving American-made flytraps into Egypt, along with other agriculture-related products like livestock feed, and recently broke into the health food industry – America is the No. 1 manufacturer of health food products – signing on as distributors of Classic Foods (Kettle Chips), Pro Bar (a healthy energy bar) and Kate’s Real Food.  Exclusive distribution rights are typically part of the arrangement, keeping the door open for more distribution in that country and beyond. The company hopes to start distributing food ingredient products (like sweeteners) by the end of the year.

Groverman believes American exporting is the next big thing. He says it’s a myth that the U.S. doesn’t make anything more, citing China’s passage of the U.S. in net output manufacturing only late last year, and the complexity of made-in-the-USA products as proof positive.

“Ninety nine percent of U.S. manufacturers do not export,” says Groverman. “Of that 1 percent that do, 60 percent export just one product.”

Groverman believes that barriers to exporting are the culprit. Every country has customs or an Environmental Protection Agency-type office or other. Groverman has learned that there is no rhyme or reason to international distribution. Every contract is unique. Every country has a different culture through which it gets things done. Sometimes it can take up to six months to get a product registered.

“You need to be good at relationships,” he says.

In about 18 months, Grovara has grown from a “hobby” affiliate model to distribute 3,000 products in 23 countries. The company tapped the World Trade Center of Greater Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania International Trade Guide, which introduced Grovara to grant programs that fund 50 percent of its travel expenses. Finding products isn’t rocket science. One way is simply trying them out, like in February when Groverman and a buddy hit up the local Whole Foods and bought $25 worth of healthy granola bars. Out of a dozen types, they liked four. “We felt maybe we could sell these,” says Groverman, who recently returned from an exploratory trip in Australia and aims to be in a new country every month.

“We only want to sell products we believe in. You have to speak from your heart. I’m not going to put a crap product in front of someone.”

A Future to Shape
Groverman says today’s student, who sees more and more examples of law school grads sitting idle in their parents basements or bartending on weekends, needs something more as motivation and that education needs to tap the internet’s true potential.

“That’s the whole concept of ‘fun theory,’ and we can make the world more exciting to change and alter people’s behaviors,” Groverman says. He believes gamification hasn’t yet had a profound widespread impact because it’s so difficult to cheat-proof, but thinks crowdsourcing cheaters could be the way toward self-policing those who try to “game the game.”

He has assembled a pretty nice team for Points.ly, as well, including industry veteran Anita Andrews of Sepiida, Chris Myers of Philadev, David Sorin of Management Mpowerment Associates, the folks at Eight Eleven and advisors Michael Crossey (Baer Crossey) and Ronald Braunfeld (formerly of where.com)

“Pete’s a visionary, extreme optimist and third-generation entrepreneur,” says Crossey, a partner at the Philadelphia business and technology law group who points out that local entrepreneurial and investment guru Steve Goodman’s first client was Groverman’s grandfather.

“He sees opportunity where no one else does. I do strongly believe that when he has a success it will be a phenomenal success.”

In six months, Groverman says, Points.ly will hopefully be a commercial game platform with an accounting system, redemption center and social media platform.

“I truly believe that games are going to save America,” he says.

Groverman speaks like that a lot – expressing big ideas, bold predictions and a deep passion. He is writing a book on his development of Grovara, basically a handbook for others hoping to test-drive a life of international travel and relationship- and team-building.

Behind all the talk, however, is what Groverman believes is a clear path. He just needs the right people, the right products and the right terms.

“If I do my job right, I want to create the coolest company in the world, help America beat China and have fun getting paid at the same time.”

JOE PETRUCCI is managing editor of Flying Kite. Send feedback here.

Photographs of Peter Groverman and Abu Kamara at Port of Philadelphia by MICHAEL PERSICO

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